Participatory Melbourne: Catalysing a new movement of leadership for the greater good


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Written by Samuel G. Wilson.

The Australian Leadership Index is delighted to announce its exciting new partnership with the Menzies Foundation, Regen Melbourne, and the Coalition of Everyone. The focus of our partnership is a collaborative project called Participatory Melbourne, which is a designed to cultivate a place-based movement of leadership for the greater good with a special focus on catalysing Melbournians’ capacity to act for the greater good individually and collectively.

Consistent with the notion that leadership for the greater good requires leadership to be enacted across several interlocking levels simultaneously, using a raft of leadership styles and approaches, Participatory Melbourne will collaboratively build experiments and action research projects that generate agency, increase trust, create social connectedness, and inspire participation and leadership. Through an interlocking series of community activations and research projects, we will work to nurture a collaborative, participatory leadership movement to foster a truly civil society that regenerates the common and public goods that sustain us.

The work of the Australian Leadership Index plays a crucial role in framing and setting the scene for Participatory Melbourne. As we have demonstrated over many years, there is a pervasive sense among Australians that we are not well served by our social institutions. With the notable exceptions of institutions such as charities, emergency services, schools and universities, and hospitals, which are seen to speak for and protect the public interest, most of our institutions are seen, at best, as having little appreciable influence on the public interest and, at worst, as undermining the public interest.

Unhappily, the institutions of government, which ought to be among the chief custodians of the public interest, are amongst the most poorly regarded institutions in Australia, typically ranking above just above media and gambling companies in terms of their integrity, competence and contribution. Consistent with this, governments—local, state and federal government alike—are among the least trusted institutions in Australia and are seen as among the worst performers in terms of institutional leadership for the greater good.

Although the pervasive distrust of our social institutions is and will likely remain a serious issue, our society faces a deeper challenge that was articulated many years ago by the writer and political philosopher, John Ralston Saul in his Massey Lectures on the topic of The Unconscious Civilisation:

“I can identify only four real options in Western history as the sources of legitimacy. A God. A King. Groups. Or the individual citizenry acting as a whole…Now, the peculiarity of the first three sources—God, king and the groups—is that once in power, they automatically set about reducing the fourth, the individual, to a state of passivity. The individual subject is reduced to the state of a subject…In other words, gods, kings and groups are not compatible with the fourth source because they require acquiescence while individualism requires participation. Either one or more of the first three is in a dominant position or the fourth dominates.”

Then, as now, our society functions largely on the relationship between groups. In this context, an important challenge is to consider ways to reframe the conversation about the public good and leadership for the greater good to encourage citizens to acknowledge our collective responsibility to each other and act for a flourishing life. Stated baldly, this calls for active citizen participation, which is the challenge we have set ourselves in Participatory Melbourne.

Of course, this is easier said than done. In complex, pluralistic societies such as ours, there are reasonable differences of opinion about what is the right, just or fair thing to do. Indeed, as revealed by millennia of thought about the common good, there is no single determinate good but rather many often competing conceptions. Thus, the common or greater good is characterised by a host of challenging dilemmas, tensions and paradoxes that must be apprehended and managed in order to discover and agree on the temporary settlements that approximate the common good, now and across time.

Among other things, these insights suggest that the practice of leadership for the greater good requires an ability and willingness among citizens to overcome any Manichaean tendencies to dogmatically parse the world into irreconcilable opposites and to instead live with the tensions and paradoxes that inevitably attend life in pluralistic societies. It calls on us to incline towards generosity and to engage with one another in good faith. This can be difficult in the best of times, and all the more so in the context of tribalism. And yet developing a shared sense of the good and apprehending our common future is the challenge of our time.

We will share more about this exciting collaboration in the weeks and months ahead. If you would like to join us in Participatory Melbourne and help us realise our vision for leadership for the greater good, please get in touch with the Australian Leadership Index or our partners at Menzies Foundation, Regen Melbourne, and the Coalition of Everyone.

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